DEAD IN THE WATER---The Rough Ride on the Red River
NOTE: Xan is the "handle" used by an editor of one the better Civil War magazines on the internet, Civil War Interactive. She has a fine grasp of history coupled with a unique sense of humor. When these two attributes are combined the result is a great read!
No doubt it seemed like a good idea at the time. Vicksburg had been taken last summer. "The Father of Waters flows unvexed to the sea," Lincoln had said. This was better as poetry than as military analysis, however, and there were still active Confederate forces on both sides of the lower Mississippi in this spring of 1864.
They were particularly pestilential in the region of the Red River. This waterway, running at this point roughly parallel to the Mississippi, has its navigable portion run from central-southern Arkansas south past Shreveport, Natchitoches and Alexandria. Both "navigable" and "run", though, are words that should be used with caution when talking about the Red.
Assigned to the project was a division of Gen. Sherman's army, added to the forces of and under the command of Gen. Nathaniel P. Banks. Banks' military career had consisted of losing to Stonewall Jackson in the Shenandoah Valley, losing to Jackson again at Cedar Mountain, and losing an attempt to capture Port Hudson. (He got credit for a win on that one because Port Hudson had to surrender anyway after Vicksburg fell.)
The navy side of the team was headed by Adm. David D. Porter. He assembled wooden gunboats to accompany the main fleet of ironclads.Choosing as his flagship the USS Eastport, they moved out on March 12. Destination: Shreveport.
They never made it. The mission struggled, battled, suffered disease, and continuous harassment by the forces of Maj. Gen. Richard Taylor, CSA. Sometimes the troops rode the boats, sometimes they marched overland. They got as far as Sabine Cross-Roads, got whupped, and headed back for the boats.
The boats got as far North as...well, let's let Porter tell it. "When I arrived at Springfield Landing I found a sight that made me laugh. It was the smartest thing I ever knew the rebels to do. They had gotten that huge steamer, _New Falls City_, across Red River, 1 mile above Loggy Bayou, 15 feet of her on shore on each side, the boat broken down in the middle, and a sand bar making below her. An invitation in large letters to attend a ball in Shreveport was kindly left stuck up by the rebels, which invitation we were never able to accept."
So much for the background. As we tune in on our intrepid warriors today they have given up and are heading home. Unfortunately they are now in more trouble than ever.
The difficulty is the river. This is springtime, which normally brings even heavier rains than normal to the bayous of Louisiana. Admiral Porter had been rather counting on these rains, and they just weren't there.
Making matters even worse, if possible, was the ingenuity of the Confederates. They were dropping the level of the Red by digging channels to divert water out of it. Porter managed to scrape by (sometimes literally, as one ship after another ran aground or hit snags and had to be repaired, pulled off or abandoned and destroyed) until he hit the rapids above Alexandria.
There was no getting around this obstacle. With every possible ounce of weight removed, the ships needed a minimum of seven feet of depth in the river to clear the rocks without ripping the bottoms out of the boats. The depth of the river was three feet, four inches, and still dropping.
There seemed to be no choice but to burn the remaining boats and fight their way out on foot. This would not only probably get them killed or captured but would no doubt ruin Porter's career. Porter was sufficiently desperate that he would listen to any plan, no matter how crazy, that provided an alternative.
He got one. Crazy is a mild word for what Lt. Col. Joseph Bailey came up with. A Wisconsin lumberman before the war, he knew that among the soldiers and sailors were quite a number of other lumberjacks--Midwesterners and New England men who knew how to swing an axe.
Bailey proposed to build a dam.
A 'wing dam' it was called, with an arm sticking out from either shore, leaving only a small gap in the center. This would be closed with a sluice gate until the water level rose to seven feet. Every other engineer in both Army and Navy forces looked and the plan and pronounced it impossible, ridiculous or both. Bailey was, however, Chief Engineer for the 19th Corps, which gave his opinion some weight. So did the lack of alternatives.
So on May 2, 1864, the axes began to ring in the forest, and logs, anchored with stones, wire and debris, began to fill the river. To speed the process, Bailey took two of the smaller, more damaged barges, filled them with rocks, got them into position on the dam and sank them. This worked brilliantly, even too well--the river rose so fast that the barges broke loose. Porter managed to get two ironclads and two wooden steamers cut loose in time to ride the wave downstream, and by damn, it worked. They fairly flew down the river and were past the falls without damage. "Thirty thousand voices rose in one deafening cheer," Porter wrote later, "and universal joy semed to pervade the face of every man present."
Every man, that is, except the ones whose ships had NOT gotten through in time and were still stuck above the rapids. Rather than abandon them, Bailey and his axemen, who were by now the heroes of the fleet, set back to work and built ANOTHER dam!
It took until May 13--a Friday that year, as it happened--but Bailey finally got the last three ships over the rapids and through the woods. The last of Banks' troops came aboard, and the entire fleet steamed off like hell for leather, and this time, at last they came home.
General Banks resigned at the end of the War and was promptly elected to Congress--five terms as a Republican and one as a Democrat, and was also US Marshall for Massachusetts.
Admiral Porter survived the war and was one of the tiny group that escorted President Lincoln on his first tour of Richmond after the fall of the Confederate capitol.
Maj. Gen. Bailey, in a reverse of usual military policy, was immediately, publicly and loudly proclaimed a hero, with Admiral Porter leading the applause. He got a brevet rank to Brigadier General on June 7, was awarded a Thanks of Congress citation, and even was given a beautiful presentation sword by Admiral Porter personally.
After the war he settled in Missouri.....but that's another story.
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